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Painting Criticism and Analysis: Thomas Cole
Undoubtedly, the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world. Starting from England, and spreading to the rest of Europe and America, the revolution brought a new paradigm of existence, shifting the views of people, from a naturalistic view to a mechanization of the forms. Based on the new technologies, the industrial revolution changed the focus of the existence out of the human, to the machine, and romantic painting is the intend to bring the nature back, steering away from the cerebral conventions of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and embracing nature as the form of understanding the mysteries of life.
During Thomas Cole activity period, a myriad of events changed the configuration of the country, bringing new stimuli and experiences to the painter. For instance, the Black Hawk War, along with the Texas War for Independence broaden the frontier of the country, expanding it to the West and exposing all the Americans to the sheer greatness and beauty of the American West.
As a result of this expansion, painting and the paintable subjects changed; giving birth to the American Romantic period. American Romanticism is a term used to separate the regional American diversification of the Romantic period. The American variant, as the movement it stems from, aimed to intersect various philosophical; political and artistic movements occurring during the American “Westward Expansion”, creating a cultural product that rescued the attention to nature as a source of spiritual and psychological renewal (Taylor 1424).
As a result of those situations occurring in the country, along with the spirit of the moment, it is not a surprise that most of Cole’s artistic production was centered on landscapes and natural motifs.
The “Titan’s Goblet” is one of the most important Cole paintings and by far, one of the most unusual of his compositions. At a first glance, the difference between the goblet and the background creates a sensation of immensity against the relatively dull background. At a first glance, the brush strokes are soft, and the painter tries to hide them, providing a softer approach to the forms. Consequently, the goblet emerges as the primary figure in the painting.
The painting’s composition features both the goblet and the sun at the right side of the painting heavily. The sun because of its high tonal values, and the goblet because of the mentioned contrast between the earthy colors of the figure and the background. Nevertheless, the painting is well-balanced as the elements in the lower left side of the painting help keeping the elements in place without distracting the sight from the central elements. At a second glance, the gray color of the waterfalls flowing out of the goblet invite the eye to look further, claiming the viewer’s attention in the small details at the bottom of the chalice, and the small villa encased between the mountains and the sea.
On the conceptual qualities of the painting, its resemblance with Bosch’s Garden of the Earthly Delights comes to mind. Most of the academic centered in Cole’s work cannot find a unified consensus on the concept behind this painting. (Parry 132). Since the painting is quite different than most of Cole’s paintings, it is hard to assess its conceptual meaning. However, upon closer examination, the theory that Parry rescues regarding the position of the goblet as the Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, serves as an interesting point to analyze the painting and its relationship with imagination and the Kantian sublime.
Comparatively, “The Mountain Ford” features a triangular composition where the first sight sees the tip of the mountain. This happens because the earth tones of the mountain contrast heavily with the blue sky. Afterward, the eye goes to the white horse at the bottom. If the horse had been another color, this effect would not occur. The technique used was oil on canvas, and the brush strokes are also minimal and calculated as if Cole wanted to create texture with minimal and precise strokes-
At the top of the picture, the colors of the sunrise mix, giving an impression of warmth regardless the coldness of the sky. After seeing the mentioned elements, the tree calls the viewer’s attention, as it seems almost hidden by the mountain background, adding depth to the composition. This tree adds weight to the right portion of the painting, countering the weight of the sky, creating a diagonal separation in the painting, as if the painter wanted to separate the heavens and the earth.
Conceptually, the painting upholds the principles of the Romantic movement. Its theme is of the staples of naturalistic painting. The horseman versus the huge landscape shows the dilemma between man and nature and the ambitions of men to fight and overcome nature. Therefore, it holds a sense of pilgrimage of a man that tries to fight the adversity. (Avery 1)
All things considered, both paintings show the paradigms of the romantic way of life. It is not surprising that Cole, being among the first American Romantics emphasized the uniqueness of the American landscape as a way to establish the symbolic importance of the American countryside versus the European monuments and architecture. However, despite Cole’s paintings do not show the realities of the American life, they show the American nature, and the way it shaped the minds and the popular imaginary of the painters and artists.
To sum up, the formal criticism upholds the ideals of romanticism. The use of natural motifs and earthy tones aim to contrast the difference between the heavens and earth. While the Enlightenment philosophy aimed to take men and place them among the gods, romanticism wants to remember people that still belong to the earth and that nature is not a dull subject when laced with the imagination.
Avery, K.J. “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Thomas Cole (1801–1848). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cole/hd_cole.htm>.
Parry, E.C. “Thomas Cole’s “The Titan’s Goblet”: A Reinterpretation.” Metropolitan Museum Journal: 123-40. Print.
Taylor, B. Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Vol. 2. New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.
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